My boyfriend and I both find it important that our careers allow us to work outdoors. My boyfriend, John, works as a wildland firefighter for the National Forest Service and I work in natural resource management and land conservation. Not only is John a firefighter, he is the squad boss for a crew that is composed of Job Corps students. Most of these students come from low-income families in rural areas, or are inner city kids that need an outlet from a bad neighborhood.
Every day that my boyfriend has come home from this year’s fire training season, he has shared an update on the students. I know them all by name at this point and feel as invested in their success as my boyfriend, without ever having met them.
The training schedule is ruthless. They do physical training, three times a day, to help them get into shape for the upcoming season of carrying chainsaws and 45 pound packs up steep terrain in hellish temperatures. During fire season, a wildland firefighter will burn an average of 10,000 calories per day. This is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48) every day while on duty. It is recommended that, while on a fire assignment, they consume about 6,000 calories per day.
During these training weeks is when the desert surrounding Boise, Idaho starts to steadily warm from highs of 60 to highs of 85. There were days that he would come home and tell me one of the students had quit or one of them threw up from the heat and strain of the workout. Those kind of things are typical during training season. When he told me that one of his students was doing his training while only eating saltines and peanut butter, my heart broke.
Andre was a 19-year-old Job Corps member that came from a rough neighborhood in Detroit. He went through the Job Corps program and was offered a job in Boise four months before his start date. While waiting to begin the fire season, he took a job at McDonald’s and saved up enough money for his plane ticket to Idaho. It cost him over $500 and took all of his savings just to get to Boise. He tried to be patient for his first check, but he finally had to give in and pull John aside to let him know that he had run out of food and needed some help. He was dry heaving from hunger pains.
When John shared this kid’s story with me, I cried. I instantly had flashbacks of my first time living away from home and rationing a can of refried beans throughout the day to get by. I was too proud to call home and ask for $20. For all we know, Andre didn’t have anyone at home to call to ask for help.
I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about how I could help. Right before finally falling asleep, I set my alarm to wake up extra early and went to sleep with a plan. John was happy to find me cooking up a feast in the kitchen when he woke up, preparing what he thought was a big breakfast for him before work. In actuality, I had made double helpings of three different meals for Andre and sent them to work with John to hand off.
John told me that Andre was so thankful that he actually teared up when John handed him the food I had prepared. He asked if he could meet me and thank me in person. We arranged to meet up for ice cream that particularly hot afternoon after their physical training session. Andre was just as John had described- tall, lanky and younger looking than his age at 19 years old. I learned about Andre, his past and what brought him here firsthand. We didn’t have very different tales to tell, except our endings were different.
I watched his demeanor change after he asked what I do for a living and what I had to do to get there. I told him about my unconventional program that granted me a Masters in Outdoor Education and my work with the tribal kids in southern Utah. I told him how I made great money working in the outdoors and doing similar work but in a different realm than he was currently experiencing. I could tell that I had gotten some wheels spinning in Andre’s teenage brain.
At the end of that fire season, John asked me meet him and Andre after they returned from their last fire. I was excited to see the scrawny, acne covered teenager I had befriended months before, but was instead met with a much more confident and physically stronger young man.
Andre wanted me to meet me to share with me that he had made plans to move to Texas to stay with friends and go back to school. He had hired a tutor and was making plans for big steps towards getting his GED and furthering his career in fire management. He wanted to share with me what a big influence that Alex and I had on him and he was looking forward to a career in the outdoors.
It turns out that going through the Job Corps program had the desired effect on Andre’s life. Although the training was tough, he persevered and now has a more financially stable job doing great work for the national forests, but potentially a long-term career as well. The Job Corps may not be for the faint of heart but I am proud to have seen him persevere.
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W.M. Chandler is a Colorado native and works best with her head in the clouds. She is an avid researcher and enjoys writing about unfamiliar subjects. She writes passionately about nature and the outdoors, human connections and relationships, nutrition and politics.